I’m always attracted to food that’s roughly influenced by the Middle East, there’s something mystical about the fragrant and often heavily spiced cuisine that I find so utterly different from the food I was brought up on and therefore bewitching. Attempts to cook it at home, often from recipe books or from googled recipes, I find a magical process. Not quite knowing how the dish I’m making should really taste, look or smell; serious kitchen alchemy happens when I’ve created something I couldn’t possibly have come up with on my own, having been exposed to so little of the history and culture, so integral to this type of cuisine, myself.
Two recent London openings have been broadly flaunted as Levantine, that is food influenced by the tick list of states of the Levant; Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, and as such, they immediately rose to the top spots on my must visit list. I arranged to meet a friend for lunch on two consecutive Tuesdays, walking straight into respective bars with no bookings; they’re both in fairly early stages of opening. Here I’d say the similarities ended, we were bemused at the very different experiences we had at each. I’d feel lazy in lumping the two in the same blog post except for this interesting comparison.
Probably still makes me lazy. Whatever.
I arrive before my lunch date at The Palomar and am seated, hesitantly at first in case I waste the second (empty for now) space for too long, at That Bar. It’s attracted plenty of press since it opened and rightly so as it harnesses all the best bits of bar dining; you’re in the eye of the storm, practically on top of the kitchen, who’s chefs banter and dance the steps of a busy, tiny kitchen, our barman is literally in front of us, mixing drinks and engaging in friendly chit chat at our whim, waiters appear to hold the whole thing together, weaving between chefs and punters in an elegant but tightly choreographed routine. There’s a room at the back that can be pre-booked but it looks wholly staid and prim; frankly why bother when the action is at this bar?
Amongst the many words already lavished upon Palomar, there seems to be a sharp divide between those that do and those that do not *get* it. Those that rave about it tell a tale of a wild and hedonistic atmosphere; free food being sent down the bar and shots necked by staff and guests in wild abandon. Those that don’t seem miffed that the hype wasn’t worthy. My experience was no food rave, it was good, but no cigar. Perhaps because my friend and I visited at lunch? But, I’m not sure it matters, I wouldn’t normally expect all that from a restaurant visit, and anyway I have work to do later on that afternoon, shots or no shots.
It doesn’t stop me from pondering the cocktail list before falling back on a Negroni, it’s what I fancy after all. It all starts so well, the glass is weighty glamour incarnate, but the stirring continues for almost an eternity and eventually I hear myself bleating for the bartender to stop, fearing for a watery drink (the nemesis of the Negroni – I love mine to start mouth puckeringly bitter, then to mellow out as I sip and dilution takes hold). My friend arrives shortly after and we’re jostled to order, not in a rude manner, but it feels as though there’s a fast pace and rhythm integral to the aesthetic, as if there’s a conductor in the wings somewhere maintaining a heavy, fluid beat. The menu is succinct, which helps, and we’re praised for our selection, staff are jovial, enthusiastic, in your face, and quick to lavish praise on us and the food.
We start with the Yemeni pot baked bread, a sort of brioche, we rip into it and dip into the accompanying tahini and shaved tomato dips, soothing and vibrant respectively. The Jerusalem polenta is supposed to be the thing to order, so we do; it’s silky, buttery rich, and honks of truffle, we dig for mushrooms and asparagus and sweep bread around the bottom to mop up any we’ve missed.
We share two meaty mains from the Stove, Josper, Plancha section of the menu; the Shakshukit, described as a deconstructed kebab and the pork belly tajine. Both are intensely rich, almost cloyingly so, spicing keeps it addictive but it’s oily and pretty heavy going. The kebab is a pile of mince daubed with four loud sauces on a bed of oil, enriched tahini and yoghurt, we barely touch the pitta crouton, choosing instead the light brioche for scooping. The pork is a lusciously fatty, tender coil of belly meat that sits on a bed of Israeli couscous, spiced with ras al hanout and anointed with sweet, plump dried apricots.
We can’t face desserts, though I love the sound of Malabi; rose scented milk pudding with pistachios, meringues and the like. Entirely sated we’re surprised by a very reasonable bill, £30 or so each, no freebies, we feel faintly short changed however of greenery rather than booze. The Palomar is vibrant, saturated colours and flavours, almost too much.
So, in contrast, Arabica Bar & Kitchen feels entirely different. For a start the space within a railway arch is spacious, The Palomar being little more than a narrow bar, there’s room to appreciate the turquoise leather banquets, a stunning Moroccan style metal meshwork design feature on the back wall and a lengthy, cool and smooth concrete bar. Naturally we hop up to that bar, enjoying a light breeze that ruffles our hair through a front that entirely opens up to one of the more sedate corners of Borough Market. We’re again here for a late lunch and have most of the restaurant to ourselves, the waiting staff waft around without engaging, seemingly nervous of disturbing our chatter.
Eventually drinks are ordered, a Levantine Martini for me incorporating Kamm & Sons, gin, vermouth and preserved lemon brine, it’s zesty and potent, but it takes far longer for us to decide on food. Divided into subsections, the menu is everything I want from this sort of food and it’s hard to choose one thing over another. Eventually we make our minds up before trying to catch the eye of a waitress who verges on the too polite to disturb again. We don’t mind, it suits our languid mood on this sunny afternoon.
Quickly food starts arriving from the kitchen at the far end of the bar. First Moutabel, a smoked aubergine and garlic dip that’s dotted with tart pomegranates, it comes with a flatbread in cute branded wrapper on the side. I could easily have ordered one of each from the dip section, but refrain in order to leave room for meat and stuff, in similar sacrifice we skip the fried offerings. I’m sad about that now. Instead, we go straight in for the Lahmacun, for it’s this that first caught my attention on the menu prior to visiting. It’s much smaller than we’re expecting but delicious in every way, basically a turkish pizza, a flat bread base is topped with spiced lamb, tomato, peppers and pine nuts, sunshine flavours that have us craving more immediately, it lasts a matter of seconds.
We’re in the mood for some meat, and the beef and bone marrow kofta hits the nail right on the head, two skewers offer three bouncy, juicy meatballs each, served rare as advertised and unctuous as you like, we fight, in a ladylike manner, over the pickled chilli and roasted tomato on the side. Chicken and pistachio skewers are slightly more restrained, I drag them through the cardamom and honey dressing, not wanting to miss a drop. In fact we order some more bread for fear of missing out on any flavourful juices, the heavily za’atar topped flatbread does the trick beautifully.
Desserts round the meal of superbly, a simple but heavenly assembly of candied clementine served with buffalo ricotta and pistachios appears to be The One, that is until the Knafeh arrives. This automatically becomes the winning dish and one I’m dying to recreate back at home; crispy, Levantine, whisper thin shredded pastry harbours a molten cheese base, all drenched in orange blossom honey and scattered with pistachios. It’s utterly glorious in every conceivable way.
So, although I enjoyed our experience at The Palomar, food was heavy, rich but reasonable, it felt like more of a one trick pony. In contrast, Arabica Bar and Kitchen felt less satisfying as a whole and small plates added up quickly, however it holds many things I still have the desire to try on their menu. Maybe a less intense experience but Arabica is the one I’m keen to return to, very soon indeed.